The political silly season has spawned a flurry of attacks on the Bush administration for “politicizing science.” To be sure, some of the criticism is justified. It appears political for the Food and Drug Administration to prohibit over-the-counter sales of the morning-after contraceptive, for example. But the critics seem to have become overnight converts in wanting public policy to be science-based. Not one of them was publicly censorious of the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Clinton administration’s blatant and heavy-handed abuse of science. Moreover, the primary force behind the condemnation of the Bush administration, the Union of Concerned Scientists, is notorious for its anti-technology zealotry. When political fortunes change and a new party comes into power in the executive branch, one must expect pervasive changes in the philosophy of government. This is part and parcel of the political process. However, the improper coercion and influence on governmental, science-based activities that we saw during the Clinton administration were outside the recognized rules of the game, and in some cases illegal. As President Clinton’s science and technology czar, Vice President Al Gore chose many high-level appointees to regulatory agencies, and thereby obtained the leverage to politicize the administration’s policies and decisions. And what a collection of yes-men and anti-science, anti-technology ideologues they were: Presidential science adviser Jack Gibbons, whose primary qualification seemed to be mastery of the phrase, “Yes, Mr. Vice President”; Environmental Protection Agency chief and Gore acolyte Carol Browner, whose agency was condemned repeatedly by the scientific community; Jane Henney, appointed FDA commissioner as a payoff for politicizing the agency’s critical oversight of food and drugs while she was its deputy head; State Department Undersecretary Tim Wirth, who worked tirelessly to circumvent Congress’s explicit refusal to ratify radical, wrongheaded treaties signed by the Clinton administration; and Agriculture Undersecretary Ellen Haas, former director of an anti-technology advocacy group, who deconstructed science thusly, “You can have ‘your’ science or ‘my’ science or ‘somebody else’s’ science. By nature, there is going to be a difference.” Never has American government been burdened with such politically motivated, anti-science, anti-technology, anti-business eco-babble. Yet those who now criticize the Bush administration were silent. As troubling as the substance of the Clinton-Gore policies was, the mean-spirited nature of their practices was as bad. Gore brooked no dissension or challenge to his view of policy or scientific rectitude and went to extraordinary lengths to purge his “enemies” throughout the government. In order to rid the civil service of dissenting views, Gore and his staff interfered in federal personnel matters in ethically questionable ways. Gore himself dismissed Will Happer, a senior scientist at the Department of Energy, because he refused to ignore scientific evidence at hand that conflicted with the vice president’s pet theories on ozone depletion and global warming. Gore’s staff interfered in civil-service hiring and other personnel actions at the departments of state, energy and interior, and at the EPA and FDA. In these departments and agencies, prominent civil servants were moved to less visible positions or substituted with other officials during interactions with the White House for their own “protection.” Gore and his staff even positioned “political commissars” at the agencies, to intimidate and sometimes override government experts. There appears little likelihood that in the foreseeable future science policy will become less politicized or more rational and progressive. There is no important constituency for sound science policy. On the contrary, politicization often represents merely pandering to the fears, which sometimes verge on superstition, of a scientifically illiterate and statistics-phobic public. Federal regulator-bureaucrats have learned to confer legitimacy on almost any policy, no matter how flawed or antithetical to the public interest. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
Skepticism about the motivations and actions of those in government is healthy. But for criticism to be credible, it should be consistent, even if not wholly apolitical. It is instructive, therefore, to ask: During the Clinton-Gore years of egregious excesses and abuses, where were those who now accuse the Bush administration of politicizing science? Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA from 1989 to1993. His latest book, “The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution,” co-authored with Gregory Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, will be published later this year.